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Courtney Lee is more than the corner three

Only three players in the league have made more corner threes with a higher percentage than Courtney Lee: Nick Young, Ryan Anderson, and Ray Allen. He’s connected on more, with greater efficiency, than Kyle Korver, Shane Battier, and Daequan Cook (who Lee shoots 11% better than, on just a few more attempts). Of the six players mentioned here, all are well-reputed marksman, but just one (Young) is known for having more complexity to his offensive game. By taking all these corner threes, Lee is tempering his own athletic ability in a semi-sacrificial way, complimenting wonderful playmakers like Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic by standing idle in the corner and doing right by his team.

Every shooting guard in the NBA can hit a wide open three-pointer from the corner. An argument can be made that because of its relative ease and high value, this particular shot is the smartest one in basketball. (Eight of the 10 teams that boast the highest percentage on corner three-pointers are either a lock to make the playoffs or right on the border—Houston ranks second.) Shooting for three points from this spot on the court offers a reward that so greatly outweighs any actual risk, that you wouldn’t be a smart team if you didn’t find a way to get more than a couple open looks per game. (No surprise here: Charlotte ranks last in attempts.)

For years defenses have been geared to prevent the ball from entering the paint. It was, and still is, the number one priority. But in the post-Bruce Brown world we currently live—where jerseys are retired for sacrifice, adding intelligence to your hustle, and being able to knock down the wide open corner three when it’s thrown in your lap—the importance of stopping three-pointers, particularly easier ones from the corner, is becoming more and more consequential.

Despite its importance, being asked to stand in the corner to take a shot that’s created by someone else is a bit of a backhanded compliment. You aren’t quite good enough to produce on your own, and much like a field goal kicker lining up for a straight away 40-yard attempt, the job is borderline thankless. People expect you to make it. While someone else has already humbled the defense and made everything happen, all you have to do is bend your knees, jump, and let one go; more times than not with no defensive interference. If you have a player who’s comfortable in the corner—who takes his family camping there on weekends when it’s raining—then you’re presented with a serious advantage. The Rockets have that guy, but this season he’s shown he can do so much more.

Courtesy of NBA.com, here’s a distribution chart of all Courtney Lee’s unassisted shots this season.

Lee’s unquantifiable personality traits are what make him so helpful—similar to Jason Terry in the way he doesn’t back down and is totally fearless no matter who he’s facing. Any intelligent, skilled player can hit shots, rotate on defense, and make the extra pass. But what Lee brings is a toughness and attitude that attaches itself to teammates. Right now he’s raising confidence in the locker room and bringing a “refuse to lose” mentality with him to the floor.

The Rockets have more than one player on their roster who has us dreaming about limitless potential. Because of their youth and the incredible improvements they continue to make in such short stretches of time, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Patrick Patterson, and Chandler Parsons all qualify as having the type of future nobody can put an appropriate ceiling on.

The car Lee drives is a bit more subtle than the one those four teammates are currently riding in, but he’s neck and neck on the same road. Four years ago, in his rookie season, he was one layup away from being a regular backcourt contributor for a champion. Unfortunately, the alley-oop rolled off the rim, and Lee was sold to the Nets as a younger, less dynamic, cheaper version of Vince Carter. What once looked like the brightest of illimitable futures was now being snuffed out by the cold, gray New Jersey sky.

Over the last few games Lee’s shooting numbers have gone down a bit, but perhaps that can be explained by the ridiculous increase in minutes. Lee plays so hard on both ends, he just needs to pace himself a little better.  But looking at what he’s done on a larger scale this season, Lee is in a contract year, setting himself up for the big deal Orlando would’ve been more than happy to have on their books. His blossoming can’t be ignored. Unfortunately for the Rockets, it probably isn’t.

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